UK university librarians say student reading lists for this term are torn due to publishers’ “frightening” increases in e-book prices, and some students are now reading what’s available or affordable, rather than their own. tutors believe they are the best for their course.
With thousands of students studying in their rooms at home due to the pandemic, providing access to textbooks and research books online has become crucial. However, librarians say university publishers do not offer electronic versions of many books considered essential for degree courses during the pandemic. And, they say, universities often cannot afford to purchase the available e-books, for which they can be charged more than five times as much as the print version, often amounting to hundreds of books per copy. sometimes for one user at a time.
Nearly 3,000 librarians, academics and students have now signed an open letter calling for a public inquiry into the “unaffordable, unsustainable and unattainable” academic e-book market.
Johanna Anderson, a specialist librarian at the University of Gloucestershire and one of the authors of the letter, says: “Publishers are manipulating the market and Covid’s price gouging. We are trying to support students during an unprecedented public health crisis and they are making it much more difficult. It is a scandal. “
Examples given by librarians include an education manual called An Integrated Play-based Curriculum for Young Children, published by Routledge, offered to libraries for £ 36.99 in print but for £ 480 for an e-book that cannot be read only by one student at a time. The cost to libraries for a business studies book, Fundamentals of Corporate Business, published by McGraw Hill, was £ 65.99 in print and £ 528 in ebook for a single user.
Libraries say they have struggled with high e-book prices and a lack of availability for years, but the problem has come to a head during the pandemic as students urgently need digital resources.
Anderson reports that publishers introduced price increases for eBooks for libraries in early 2020, often alongside licensing changes that meant that instead of many students being able to simultaneously access a book online, a only one student could read it at a time.
Although several publishers offered free access to many eBooks during the first lockdown in March, this was taken down in June.
Anderson says ebooks costing over 500% more than print versions are “no exceptions, but the prices I expect to see.”
The publishers are adamant that they are supporting universities and students and not trying to profit from them during the pandemic. They insist they are priced right and say e-books cannot compare to printed books as they can be used in different ways, with additional functionality, and are widely shared across the university.
Caroline Ball, specialist librarian at the University of Derby, explains that one of the reasons librarians are angry is that university publishing is one of the most lucrative industries in the world, with unusually high profit margins , estimated at around 40%.
She says: “Academics usually write, review, and edit publications such as journals and textbooks, and they are often not paid for it. Charging their universities with huge sums of money to access these books in digital format during a pandemic is certainly unfair. “
Anderson receives emails every day from students who can’t find the books they need online, and says she spends sleepless nights worrying about not being able to access the books they need for their studies. essays or their revisions. “They’re starting a new semester with new modules and new reading lists, but so many books aren’t available electronically or are too expensive for us to buy,” she says.
Librarians also complain that some publishers are pairing libraries with expensive subscriptions or bundles to digitally purchase some of the most popular academic books. “You have to pay thousands of dollars for a package that includes a few eBooks you need and a lot of things you don’t need,” says Anderson. “It’s like Waterstones saying ‘you can have this novel but you have to buy the whole store’. It’s scandalous.
Rachel Bickley, Senior Liaison Academic Librarian at London Metropolitan University, wonders why it costs so much more to produce an electronic version of a book. She asks, “What’s going on with all that extra money?” “
Bickley says the eBook crisis affects everyone, but some more than others. In some science classes, she says, there are basic texts that “just aren’t available” for home-study students. “Since the summer, academics have been trying to remake their reading lists so that they are more accessible to students who cannot enter the library,” she says. “But they send us these lists for verification and most of the time the e-books are not available or at an exorbitant price. ”
Bickley says UK libraries must tell teachers to rewrite class reading lists because they can no longer afford them. “We’re seeing academics having to build reading lists based on what’s available, rather than what they actually think students need to read the most. It is simply not acceptable.
Graham Edgar, Professor of Psychology and Applied Neuroscience at the University of Gloucestershire, says: “I have had to remove some textbooks from my reading list because I cannot justify their presence. It will cause too much stress if students cannot access the books they need through the library. Some students buy textbooks themselves, but there are many who cannot afford to do so.
Paul Ayris, pro vice-provost for library services at University College London, says he had to spend an additional 3 million pounds during the pandemic to buy enough e-books for the 48,000 students at UCL, a suitable investment that other institutions may not be able to afford. UCL librarians have worked on several thousand reading lists, repeatedly forced to tell academics that the books they want students to read are not electronically accessible or cost too much.
The university is so enraged by what Ayris calls “the e-book scandal” that it has just decided that it will start publishing its own open access textbooks. “It’s a direct response to this crisis,” he says. “We are tired of paying these prices when our academics write the textbooks. In the future, universities must partner up and take control of their own publishing.
The Guardian approached the Publishers’ Association but declined to comment.
A spokesperson for Taylor Francis, owner of Routledge, said: “Comparing the individual printing costs with a digital license does not represent the reality of how the different formats are used, nor the additional functionality provided by them. electronic manuals. We believe that our electronic books, which are sold title by title and not in lots, are offered at fair and competitive prices for the library market.
“We recognize the current unique challenges libraries face in providing remote access to documents, and will continue to meet their needs during the pandemic and beyond.”
He said the publisher provided free electronic textbooks to students as well as free upgrades to single-to-multi-reader license libraries for the summer term of 2020.
A spokesperson for McGraw Hill said the company will release more titles as e-books “as quickly as possible.”
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have undertaken a number of initiatives to help students and educators make a smooth transition to online learning situations. In Spring 2020, we provided free access to eBooks and our digital courseware solutions to over 65,000 students and supported over 500 instructors to help them transition online in the UK and Europe alone.
He said McGraw Hill was “deeply focused on the affordability of higher education,” adding that “in the United States and elsewhere, the average cost of course materials for students has been declining steadily for more than a decade. , which is a good thing “.